The Impact of US Population Growth on the Global Environment
Environmental issues transcend international borders. Regardless of where someone might live, all people and animals on the planet breath the same air, share the same resources, and are ultimately affected by the environmental consequences of the actions of our global neighbors. The United States has been criticized by other nations, by international health organizations, and by environmental groups for using more than its fair share of resources and for producing more than its share of greenhouse gases and other pollutants. If current consumption and pollution patterns in the United States are allowed to continue, the United States will have an increasingly negative impact on the world’s environment.
With a population of 303,824,640, the United States is the 5th most populated nation, with roughly 5 percent of the world’s population (Central Intelligence Agency, “Rank Order – Population”). Yet this 5 percent of the world’s population accounted for approximately 25 percent of the world’s total oil consumption in 2005 (Central Intelligence Agency, ” Rank Order – Oil – consumption”). The United States is second only to Argentina in per capita consumer of beef, with an annual per capita consumption of 96.4 pounds; China, by comparison, had an annual per capita beef consumption of 12.5 pounds that same year (USDA Foreign Agricultural Service). It should be noted that despite China’s lower per capita beef consumption, total been consumption in China surpassed total United States consumption for the first time in 2004, when the Chinese consumed 64 million tons of meat compared to the 38 million consumed by Americans (China Daily).
In addition to consuming more of almost everything than almost every nation in the world, the United States is also one of the world’s biggest polluters. Until 2006, the United States held the dubious distinction of being the world’s leading producer of greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide (CO2) and other pollutants. China surpassed the United States in CO2 emissions for the first time in 2006, when the Chinese produced 6,200 million tons of carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels and other industrial activities, compared to the 5,800 million tons produced by the United States (Bloomberg News). The United States has refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocols, an international agreement that places limits on greenhouse gas emissions.
Population and the Ecological Footprint
The 2000 census reported that the United States had a population of over 281 million. The population of the United States is projected to increase by more than 82 million people, or 29.2 percent of the current population, between the years 2000 and 2030 (United States Census Bureau). Part of this increase will be due to immigration of people to the United States from other countries. Whether these new American citizens will adopt the same consumer behaviors Americans that are already in the country remains to be seen. In some cases, the consumption of energy and other consumer goods by immigrants may be limited by low incomes and other barriers. At the same time, it is also possible that these immigrants will adopt many of the consumer habits that currently characterize American culture, including increased use of gasoline, increased food consumption, and activities that contribute to an increase in the amount of pollution that is emitted from the United States.
Currently, the United States has an ecological intensity of 1.4, which means that America’s ecological footprint is “1.4 times as large as would be expected based on its population size, level of affluence, land area, and latitude alone” (Dietz, Rosa, and York). A country’s ecological footprint is a measurement of how consumption and other activities of that country impact the world. The United States currently represents 20 per cent of the total human environmental footprint. The absolute size of America’s ecological footprint is not expected to decline in the future, although its rate of increase is expected to slow down if not to reverse. The impact of the ecological footprints of China and India, however, is expected to increase as these nations become more industrialized and more affluent. Together, China and India are expected to account for 37 per cent of the total human environmental footprint by the year 2015 (Dietz, Rosa, and York, 17). By comparison, the United States is expected to account for 17 per cent of the total human footprint by that same year (Dietz, Rosa, and York, 17). Thus, while the relative size of the American ecological footprint will decrease, the absolute amount of the environmental impact of the United States will continue to be higher than any other nation for some time.
Why Americans Take More Than Their Share
There are several possible explanations about why the 5 per cent of the world’s population that lives in the United States could be responsible for the consumption of 25 per cent of the world’s oil and more than their share of many of the world’s other resources. Part of the reason behind this imbalance may be American affluence in a relatively poor world. American’s have a per capita income of $41,674, compared to a per capita income of $531 in Kenya; $707 in India, and $37,266 in the United Kingdom (World Bank, 12). It should also be noted that income is not evenly distributed across the United States. In fact, “since 1975, practically all the gains in household income have gone to the top 20% of households” (CIA). It is reasonable to assume that this top 20 per cent of American households would be more likely to consume more than their share of resources than families with fewer financial resources.
It should also be noted that there are several countries that have a higher per capita income than the United States. These other countries, however, do not seem to engage in the same level of consumption of resources as Americans. It has been estimated that if people in the developing world consumed as much as those living in the United States and the world’s other richest countries consume on a regular basis, it would require the resources of an additional planet of the same size and resources as Earth to meet the worldwide demand (World Wildlife Federation, 18). Other sources have estimated that at current growth rates, people would “need 11 more planet Earths to support the world’s population by 2050” (FacingTheFuture.org, 47).
One strong tenant of American culture is the belief in the ability to pay. In the United States, wealth is directly connected to privilege. The American health care system, for example, is based on the belief that people who can afford to pay more money for health care are entitled to a better quality of healthcare than those who have less money or who are not able to pay. This philosophy permeates American culture. People who have more money are entitled to buy more goods and services than people who do not have as much money. This attitude of entitlement also affects how Americans view the rest of the world. From the perspective of a typical citizen of the United States, Americans are entitled to 25 per cent of the world’s oil reserves because Americans have the means to purchase 25 per cent of the world’s oil reserves. This philosophy even applies to something as basic as food. Americans are entitled to more food than Africans, for example, because Americans can afford to buy more food. Consequently, people living in the United States are more likely to die of obesity than they are to die of starvation. Meanwhile, while Americans are eating themselves into obesity, diabetes, and coronary disease, 923 million people across the world live in a near-constant state of hunger and almost 16,000 children die from hunger-related diseases every day, or about one child every five seconds (BreadForTheWorld.org). Such rampant consumption places a tremendous strain on the rest of the planet as more land, water and other resources from around the world are required to meet the demands of consumers from the United States and other more affluent nations in the West. Over the course of a lifetime, a child born in the U.S. will have 50 times the environmental impact of a child born in the average developing country, more than 250 times the environmental impact of a child born in parts of Africa (FacingTheFuture.org, 47).
This entitlement mentality may also be seen in American policy towards global pollution. In 1997, representatives from the United States signed the Kyoto Protocol, an agreement between 160 nations to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases. In the agreement, the United States agreed to reduce emissions from 1990 levels by 7 percent during the period 2008 to 2012. However, although the United States signed the agreement, the Republican-controlled Congress at the time refused to ratify it. A report issued by the Department of Energy in 1998 showed that implementing the Kyoto Protocols could cost the United States as much as $338 billion dollars annually (United States Department of Energy). President George W. Bush, who came into office in 2001, was strongly opposed to the Kyoto Protocol and claimed it was unfair to expect the United States to comply to its mandates and deadlines. More than 10 years have passed since the signing of the Kyoto Protocols, and the United States has still not committed to working with the international community on this issue.
It would be unfair, however, to blame the world’s environmental problems on American consumerism without recognizing the ways that other nations have benefited from American overconsumption. It is not an exaggeration to say that American consumers and their desire for low-priced consumer goods have fueled the economic development of China, India, and other developing nations. The nations of the Middle East have benefited financially from the development of their oil reserves and the marketing of oil to Americans. While it is true that China and India represent growing markets for oil, the loss of American consumers would deal be a heavy blow for OPEC and other oil-producing nations that sell to the United States.
Implications for the Future
Any evaluation of the impact of the growth of the United States on the rest of the world must be considered in the context of what is happening in other countries. The Bush administration and other critics of the Kyoto Protocols have argued that China and India are creating more pollution as they become more affluent and that developing nations are creating more pollution as they move towards industrialization. From one perspective, this argument is correct. As noted above, China is now the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases. The increased level of greenhouse gases coming from China, however, does not reduce the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by the United States. The United States looks better only by comparison and not in objective terms of how much pollution is being released into the atmosphere. If anything, the increased levels of pollution from China, India, and other nations only increases America’s responsibility and need to reduce its own pollution emissions, first as an example of how a responsible nation should behave and secondly as a contribution towards solving the problem.
Consumption in the United States is affected by several factors, and it is unclear whether a growing population will automatically result in increased consumption of commodities that could be used elsewhere in the world. For example, it is true that more Americans will mean more cars on American highways. This increase in cars, however, may not necessarily mean an increase in the consumption of fossil fuels or in the release of greenhouse gases. The recent increase in gas prices during the Summer of 2008 resulted in a 6.3 percent reduction in driving in New York and an increased use of public transportation (Neuman). Rising gas prices also led to an increased interest in alternative fuels, hybrid cars, and other resources that could result in a long term decline in the use of fossil fuels. These alternative energy sources could cause a decline in the percentage of the world’s oil reserves that are used by Americans and a decrease in the amount of pollutants that are emitted by cars. A similar scenario could also occur in food consumption. After decades of increased consumption of fast food and other high calorie meals, Americans are becoming more concerned about their health and about what and how much they eat. A reduction of the number of calories that the average American consumes on a daily basis would result in an increased food supply that could be used in other countries. By reducing its caloric intake, the United States could reduce its waistline and its ecological footprint at the same time.
As a capitalistic nation, American culture is driven more by economics than it is motivated by government requirements. For example, it was not a government law that made Americans give up their gas-guzzling SUVs, but the reality of $4 a gallon gasoline. Congress and the Environmental Protection Agency may set requirements for reducing emissions from power companies and other sources, but those mandates will be either circumvented or ignored if it is not in the company’s best economic interest to observe them. Obesity did not become a major concern for many Americans until they realized what it was costing to provide health care for people who were overweight.
Unfortunately, when it comes to the global environment, Americans also do not appear to be highly motivated by ethical considerations. Utilitarian ethics argue that what is good is determined by what brings the greatest amount of happiness to the largest number of people. This is a common perspective in America, and has been used to justify the taking of houses to build highways and for other necessary steps. It does not, however, seem to extend to the global community. Instead, Americans use the ability to pay to determine whether something is ethical. Consequently, there is an uneven distribution of food, energy, and other resources throughout the world.
Based on the past behavior of the United States, it is apparent that Americans will not reduce their environmental footprint until it is in their economic interest to do so. Arguments about fairness and the plight of poor nations have and will probably continue to have little effect. The challenge for government is to find ways to create economic incentives to reduce consumption and to create systems that can do a better job of distributing food and other goods to underdeveloped countries. At the same time, the United States should be encouraged to view itself as part of the larger global community and not as a separate entity whose actions somehow do not affect others.
The environmental footprint of a country is determined by the number of people in the country and by how resources are distributed within that country. Reductions in the environmental footprint, therefore, may be created by either reducing the number of people in the country or by increasing the efficiency of resources that are used by citizens in the country. As the population of the United States increases, Americans will have to find more efficient ways of distributing resources and of sharing those resources with the rest of the world.
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